Feminist Theories: Action Versus Reaction

In the Liberal Feminism chapter of Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, Rosemarie Putnam Tong describes Betty Friedan’s progression as one towards humanism and away from feminism. She then quotes Friedan, who says we need a “new [human] politics that must emerge beyond reaction” (31). A critique of this transition by other feminist is that as long as patriarchy is firmly in place, “it is premature for feminists to become humanists” (32).

This is yet another issue I am ambivalent on. My first reaction (a bit ironically) was yes, let’s move beyond being reactionary. It’s a thing I try to accomplish in my personal life as well: being active instead of reactive. It’s a constant struggle, and on my more cynically reclusive days I wonder if action is possible, if we are ever autonomous enough to make a pure, active move. And moves we may think are active might actually be reactive; and sometimes, it’s so hidden, so internalized, we can never know.

I extend this to my political life and beliefs as well. For example, I know that my interested in feminism is a direct result of (long-story-short) my being given a lot of flack as a young girl for not being feminine or pretty or boy-crazy enough, which led me to look and see that it wasn’t just me, that there were forces out there that were causing this to happen. So, one could say that my interest in feminism is a reaction and, therefore, no thought or action I make that arises from my feminist sensibilities can ever be purely active.

One idea is to move “beyond” feminism and into something like humanism, but wouldn’t that just be a reaction to not wanting to be reactionary? So, while I love the idea of Freidan’s humanism, as soon as I read the critique I saw the validity in that as well. How are we to tell when our society is egalitarian enough? And even if it becomes so, can we ever move beyond reaction, given our history and inherently social nature?

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